Birdsong and laughter drifted on the afternoon breeze as the Doman Enclave enjoyed yet another beautiful day. Yugiri was returning from the Rissai-juku, enjoying the rare pleasure of a leisurely stroll, when the children's commotion brought her to a halt.
"You're wrong! He got them fighting an imperial general!"
"Nuh-uh, it was a tiger! It caught him off guard and clawed at his head!"
Another argument over the origin of the scars on Lord Hien's forehead. And every assertion straying further and further from the truth.
"You're both wrong! He got them in a duel with the monkey king!"
Pitched battle with an auspice was more imaginative than most rumors she had heard. And closest to the truth besides. Still, it was but another flight of fancy. Yugiri could say this with confidence, for she was there that fateful day when Lord Hien received his most distinguishing marks.
When she was a child still living beneath the waves of the Ruby Sea, Yugiri and the other youths of Sui-no-Sato were forbidden from venturing beyond the safety of the village. Nevertheless, time and again the adventurous among them would sneak past their elders to behold the wonders of the surface world. They journeyed unto Doma, but what they found was not the proud kingdom of ancient legend. The city proper was a ruin, and black-clad imperial soldiers marched through her streets.
The sight of such misery and destruction was more than the children could bear, and so they ran, over root and under branch, as fast as their legs would carry them. So determined were they to return home that no one noticed when Yugiri fell behind. Soon she was lost and alone in the dense bamboo groves of Yanxia. But not for long.
She entered into a clearing where stood a young boy, who gripped firmly in his hands a wooden sword ill-suited to his small frame. Steady and rhythmic were his swings, and his sweat-soaked garments led her to wonder how long he had been at his task. Yugiri's fear at her unfamiliar surroundings gave way to curiosity as she mustered the courage to speak.
"What are you doing?"
His sword did not waver as he carried on swinging and replied.
"Training. If I am to fight, to protect the ones I love, I must become stronger!"
"But...you're only a child. It's not your place to fight, much less protect anyone."
The boy stopped at that, and at last regarded the unexpected spectator.
"I am not a child," he declared. "I am Shun Rijin, a samurai of Doma. A samurai's duty is to protect their people. And to do that," he said, as he assumed his stance, "I must train."
One day the young boy would fulfill his duty and bring freedom to his homeland, and though she did not know it then, Yugiri would be at his side. But today was not that day, and as the skies began to darken, she was reminded of her pressing need to return to her village. With young Shun to guide her, she found her way back to the eastern shore, and shortly thereafter Sui-no-Sato. Safe at last. But for how long...
It was only a matter of time before the Empire plumbed the depths of the Ruby Sea, and the people of Sui-no-Sato would have no hope of withstanding an imperial assault. Not unless I am prepared to do my part. The very next day, she returned to the surface to join Shun in the bamboo grove, and tried her best to match his movements with a wooden sword of her own.
Every day she would sneak away to train with him, and every day the two grew closer. Shun had found a much-needed friend with whom he could share anything, and through their friendship a measure of the childhood that war had denied him. The simple game of ishikeri she taught him was enough for Shun to forget the worries of the world, if only for a short while, and when Yugiri explained that the children of Sui-no-Sato played such games all the time, she was struck by the awe and envy in his wide eyes. So much has been taken from them. So much have I taken for granted.
The skies were clear and the sun was shining when Yugiri arrived at the bamboo grove for another bout of training, only to find Shun sitting quietly, arms folded, brow furrowed. Doma Castle had suffered terrible damage when the Empire invaded and laid siege to it, and having decided to repair and repurpose it, the Garleans had begun conscripting villagers en masse. For a fortnight the people had been forced to labor without cease, rest afforded only to those who collapsed from exhaustion. Unable to ignore their plight, Shun had gone to his father, Lord Kaien, the former king of the imperial province, and begged him to put an end to the suffering. To stand and fight.
"You know not what you ask of me, my son. What you ask of Doma." His father ruled in name only—a puppet of the Empire—and knew well the cost of disobedience. "You may think it cowardice or heartlessness to accept this treatment, but I do so that my people endure. That they survive..."
Shun had managed to bite back the anger and keep silent before his father. But there, in the grove with Yugiri, he could no longer contain the rising fury, nor the bitter tears.
"I have to help them! I have to!" He looked away, trying in vain to hide his face. "I am a samurai of Doma, I must fulfill my duty!" But Yugiri had no words to comfort him—only her company. And so they sat together in silence and watched the clouds drifting by overhead.
After a time, Shun rose to his feet. "I'm sorry, Yugiri, but I have to return home." She saw how he trembled still, fists clenched, and refused to meet her gaze. Don't lie to me.
Yugiri followed him, keeping to the shadows, and as she suspected, he did not return to the family estate, but instead traveled along the One River, until he reached his true destination─the Swallow's Compass. Built in tribute to Ganen, his forefather and the legendary hero who united Doma, the once-great mausoleum now sat in disrepair, and the imperials turned away all who would make pilgrimage there. But few knew the mausoleum grounds better than Shun and his family, and Yugiri watched from a distance as the young samurai stole past the guards, and disappeared through a hidden passage in the wall.
As she crept through the dark, moldy corridors, eyes fixed on Shun, the silence was broken by the grinding of metal on metal. The boy scurried into the shadow of a pillar as Yugiri scrambled to hide behind a nearby gong. No sooner had they concealed themselves than a gargantuan, steel-clad figure emerged from the darkness, a shining jewel signifying its heart─a kiyofusa.
The soulless sentry, Shun well knew, was charged with safeguarding the tomb's treasures from would-be robbers. He also knew it did not distinguish between friend or foe, and so he held his breath, hoping to remain undiscovered. Eventually, the kiyofusa receded back into the dark of the mausoleum, prompting Shun to make his move. Yugiri leapt from her hiding place to pursue him, but, in her haste, set the gong in motion, and before she had made it even five steps, a thunderous clang filled the air. The ringing of the gong was answered by the rattling of steel as the kiyofusa made its return, intent on dispatching the intruder.
The guardian was upon her in an instant, its monstrous blade held high. You fool... As it came crashing down, she fell to the ground and shut her eyes to brace for the end. Yugiri winced at the sharp screech of sword locking with sword, and when she opened her eyes, she saw Shun standing over her, struggling to keep the sentry at bay.
"Get back! Quickly!"
Though she was very nearly frozen with terror, Yugiri managed to crawl to safety as Shun parried the kiyofusa's strike, driving its blade to the side. The construct would not be deterred, however, and dealt a rising stroke that sent Shun tumbling backwards. He managed to deflect the blow at the last moment, and though bruised, believed himself otherwise unharmed...until he felt the warmth flowing from his brow.
"Kami give me strength," he muttered. The guardian would overpower him ere long, but there was a certain regularity—a predictable pattern to its movements. Shun grinned—there was hope yet, provided he could force it to miss a second time.
The steel behemoth swung its sword in a wide arc once more, and though the boy thought himself prepared, with its deceptive speed the sentry nearly took his head again. But Shun would not let another cut slow him. The kiyofusa shifted as before to recover from the momentum of its own attack, and seizing the opportunity, he stepped as close as he dared, and with all his strength, drove his blade into its crystalline heart. The jewel shattered, and at once the mountain of metal crashed to the floor, a lifeless heap. A hard-won victory, to be sure, but one he dared not waste time savoring, for it was but one of the mausoleum's many protectors.
"We have to get out of here. Now!" Shun whispered as he helped Yugiri up, and together they retraced their steps quickly and quietly, never stopping until fresh air once more filled their lungs. Whatever Shun had hoped to achieve was forgotten now, a criss-cross of fresh scars the only reward for his efforts.
"I... I owe you my life," Yugiri began, but their respite was short lived, for they were soon spotted by an imperial guard making his rounds.
"Younglings? Here?" The guard cocked his head, then smiled...though there was no kindness in his eyes. "Well, I hope it was worth it," he said as he reached for the sword at his hip.
"Please!" Shun pleaded. "She's only here because of me. Spare her, I beg you!" The boy got down on his hands and knees and pressed his bloody forehead against the dirt.
"Noble for one so young, I'll grant you that. Still..." Yugiri was frozen with fear as the guard drew his blade. Did we escape one death only to meet with another?
"My, what a piteous scene."
The trio turned and saw Gosetsu—honored general, renowned samurai, and faithful retainer of House Rijin, standing some distance away. "Lord Kaien will be inconsolable when he learns of his son's execution." The guard looked again to the children, squinting at Shun in particular. The blade in his hands was shaking.
"I-I have my orders. Anyone caught trespassing in the mausoleum is to be executed." He tightened his grip. "No exceptions."
"A man of duty, I see... But how, pray tell, do you intend to explain that mere children were able to sneak past you undetected? I shudder to think what punishment the viceroy might impose for such negligence."
Yugiri saw the blood drain from the soldier's face. Slowly he lowered his sword, then sheathed it. "...Away with you, then. And let no one else see you," he said, before resuming his patrol.
"Such recklessness does not become Doma's heir, Master Rijin. What if I had not come quickly enough to dissuade the guard?"
Rising from the ground, Shun could not bring himself to look Gosetsu in the eye. "Our people need help. I...I thought if I could find the monkey king, he..."
"Qitian Dasheng would indeed prove a formidable ally, if the tales of his prowess are true. Let us suppose your plan had succeeded, and with his aid you saved those being forced to rebuild the castle. What then?"
Shun opened his mouth to speak, but they both knew he had no answer.
"I too wish to see our people spared imperial cruelty, but a far crueler fate awaits deserters upon recapture. Will you subject them to that risk? Have they even the resolve to bear it?"
Shun was trembling now, and the towering samurai knelt and spoke to him gently.
"Forgive me, Master Rijin, but I mean only to remind you of your father's lesson. That you must understand what you ask of your people. What you ask of Doma."
Yugiri saw Shun grappling with the truth of the grizzled samurai's words.
"He asks too much of himself, too," she said. Yugiri went on to recount Shun's gambit that allowed them to escape the mausoleum relatively unharmed.
"Bravery well beyond your years. Lord Kaien will be proud. And happy to see you delivered home, my lord."
In time, Doma Castle was rebuilt, and the conscripts were allowed to return to their villages. But the bamboo grove where two children had once played would be abandoned, for Shun was preparing to train under Gosetsu's watchful eye. And we must say our good-byes.
"My father was right─for now we must endure. We are not ready to oppose the Empire. Myself most of all." To Yugiri's surprise, he allowed himself a wry smile. "Someday, I will make Doma a land like Sui-no-Sato, where children laugh and no one lives in fear─I swear it."
Though there was no telling when that day might come, Yugiri couldn't help but share in his hope.
"And I'll be there when you do!"
"I will hold you to that!"
The sound of skittering rocks roused Yugiri from the memories. The children had ceased their bickering and were engaged in a game of ishikeri. For they live not in fear. For they are free.
"Have you room for one more?"
In many ways, he was still a child at heart. Yugiri looked on with a smile as Lord Hien added his voice to the chorus of laughter. A child at heart...and a man of your word.